International House Cafe-goers will be in for a surprise come Wednesday when they enter the historical Piedmont Avenue joint and are welcomed with a completely different menu.
After the cafe’s lease expired last month, I-House leadership selected Bon Appetit, an on-site restaurant company that provides cafe and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities, to be the new owner of the restaurant — which will now have a unique international menu and new chef.
Initially, cafe employees were taken aback by the change in administration and started a Facebook campaign and petition to save I-House cafe and their jobs, which they perceived to be under threat. However, Bon Appetit has decided to keep the majority of former employees on board and is being more transparent with future cafe plans, according to Jason Landau, the general manager of Mills College Bon Appetit Services.
“That campaign was really gratifying in a way, because it showed how much people who use the cafe care about the place,” said Martin Brennan, executive director of I-House. “We had lots of emails, and we responded to each and every one — there was never any intention of closing the cafe.”
Mark Lewis, a former UC Berkeley student and cafe employee, said that he and other employees only found out changes were occurring at the cafe about three weeks ago when he spoke in passing with former cafe owner Sandy Boyd, who was driving on the street in front of I-House.
“We didn’t have any communication at all,” Lewis said. “The old manager only told me in passing that they decided not to renew the lease. We then decided to start a Facebook campaign and petition, because we didn’t know about our situation or if we would be hired back on.”
Some have said that miscommunication over the changes in the cafe administration may be connected to demonstrations at I-House in May where union workers and community members protested the workplace struggles of food service workers at the I-House dining commons.
However, Brennan said the two situations are independent, as the cafe operations are leased out, and only dining services are in-house.
“The dining services operations include catering and the dining hall where we serve meals, which is a separate operation run by International House,” he said. “The difficulties that happened last May dealt with the fact that workers felt we needed more union-represented employees on staff.”
Though the Facebook “Save the International House” petition began in part because of a lack of communication between parties involved, Boyd — who also owns Berkeley coffee shop Cafe Milano — said that he also was not given enough information about the decision from the I-House administration.
Brennan said that although there had been a “harmonious relationship” with Boyd in the past, Bon Appetit was chosen because of its “innovative” plans for the cafe’s future.
“We looked at the bids and decided on Bon Appetit because they were very innovative for the kinds of things they wanted to do for foods, providing service and changing appearance,” Brennan said.
According to Lewis, Bon Appetit management said in a meeting with cafe employees that it is interested in creating a new sustainable menu and putting on different types of events. At the same time, they will try to maintain current cafe offerings, including allowing students to sit, study and mingle on the cafe terrace.
With 400 accounts nationwide, Bon Appetit is based on “farm scratch” cooking and purchases food from local farmers. The company will take over operations on Monday, but the cafe will be closed for two days for training and cleaning before its general opening on Aug. 3.
“The way that we prepare food will be dramatically different, since we do everything from scratch,” Landau said. “Qualitywise, it will be a nice step up for guests — from a cooking standpoint, we are looking at a tapas bar, with more international flavor and no hydrogenated oil, with minimal saturated and trans fat.”
Brennan added that Bon Appetit is committed to resident satisfaction and will work with the I-House administration to give patrons a comfortable place to eat and relax.
Lewis said he and fellow employees are just happy to have stable jobs and are finally able to look forward to the changes in store at the cafe.
“They have agreed to hire back on just about everybody who works here now,” he said. “All of us are pretty excited for what will come next — including the menu, because it has been the same for 10 years.”
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